Monday 20 March 2017

The Trial of the Scottish Chartists - by Ann Swinfen

The history of the Chartist movement in England is widely known and well documented. Less well known, perhaps, is the Chartist movement in Scotland, and the trial which took place in Edinburgh in November, 1848, of three of its leaders.
1848 Paris
The year, 1848, was one which shook the foundations of society throughout Europe, and came to be known as ‘the year of revolutions’. Starting in France, a series of uprisings spread through more than fifty countries, sparked off by a sustained period of agricultural failures and unemployment. Generally started by a loose and unsustainable alliance of the middle and working classes, they sought to overthrow the long established power of the old European aristocracies and promote more widespread democracy.

1848 Poland - slaughter of aristocrats

Tens of thousands died. Although the wider aims of the movements were not achieved, there were some victories, such as the abolition of serfdom in Hungary and Austria, and the establishment of more democratic forms of government in some countries.
1848 Serbia
The roots of Chartism in Britain, however, lay ten years earlier. The Reform Act of 1832 not having satisfied widespread demands for reform to the rights to vote and to stand for election, in 1837 six working men and six members of Parliament formed a committee which in 1838 produced the People’s Charter, a document which set out the six fundamental principles of Chartism. These were:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the Nation.
  5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.

The movement was thus intended to achieve its aims by constitutional means, and not by means of the violence employed during the 1848 uprisings in continental Europe, when many aristocrats were ruthlessly slaughtered, and the rebellions were put down with equal ruthlessness.

In Britain, following the publication of the Charter, enormous mass rallies were held, particularly in the north of England, in the industrial Midlands, in the south Wales mining valleys, and in Glasgow. Millions of people signed petitions in support of the Chartist aims. 
Presenting the 1842 petition to Parliament

Popular support was further increased by a flood of Chartist newspapers and pamphlets, and by many of its early leaders the Charter was seen as a means to improve the living conditions of the working classes. Chartism was a ‘knife and fork, a bread and cheese question’, according to one of them, Joseph Rayner Stephens. However, there were others who advocated more extreme methods of achieving political reform, and their activities caused serious alarm amongst the authorities, who were not unmindful of matters in the rest of Europe. Stephens himself was arrested and imprisoned for taking part in an unlawful assembly.

Chartist activity and the attempts of the authorities to suppress it continued throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, then with the rise of revolutionary movements in continental Europe there was a resurgence of support for Chartism in Britain during 1848. The violence of extreme Chartists escalated, as did the legislation passed to curb their activities and the punishments meted out to those found guilty.
High Court of Justiciary
It was against this background that the trial took place at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh of the three Scottish Chartist leaders – John Grant, Henry Ranken, and Robert Hamilton. The charges against the accused stated that they ‘did…wickedly and feloniously, combine and conspire…with other persons to the prosecutor unknown, calling themselves Chartists, to effect an alteration of the laws and constitution of the realm…not peaceably and lawfully, and loyally, but by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority.’ In addition they were charged that they did ‘wickedly and feloniously, and seditiously, resolve and agree to form a body, to be called the National Guard, and to be provided with arms, to be used for the illegal and seditious purpose of effecting, by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority, the said alterations of the laws and constitution of the realm.’

In the current climate of apprehension and fear, all of this was pretty damning.

Support for the Chartist movement had been strong in Scotland during the earlier part of 1848, particularly in the large cities, and this support was also extended to the formation of an armed National Guard, whose purpose, by means of armed insurrection, would be to tie up English forces, enabling the Irish to attack and overwhelm the English garrisons in Ireland. Moreover, Robert Hamilton was reported in the Scottish press to have declared, at a mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links, that he did not see why a revolution could not take place here as well as in France, and that, while at one time he would have been satisfied with the Charter, now he would not be satisfied with anything less than a Republic.

Therefore, these men appeared to be advocating the creation of an illegal armed force, followed by the destruction of the constitution and the overthrow of the monarchy. Earlier Henry Ranken had not spoken, on the whole, in so inflammatory a fashion, until he began to make threats about the kind of armed force that was proposed, including the use of such deadly weapons as ‘Warner’s long range’. This was a recently invented long range missile, intended to blow up ships at a distance of up to five miles. In the event, it was a failure, but at the time it may have seemed alarming. Ranken also began to advocate that young men should provide themselves with arms, should go to Ireland and assist the Irish revolutionaries, and should accept nothing less than a Republic. John Grant’s role had been primarily to act as chairman of the mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links in June, and to declare that the resolution to form a National Guard had been adopted.

It was as a result of this meeting and others, and the inflammatory speeches made, that the three men were arrested in August and went on trial in November 1848. Ironically, support for Chartism had already begun to fall away in June, so that a number of planned mass meetings were poorly attended. Perhaps the extreme measures proposed – armed insurrection and creation of a Republic – were too much to stomach for those who supported the more reasonable original six articles of the Chartist movement. Events on the Continent must also have alarmed many, who wanted no part in such violence.
James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution
Up to early 1848, the treatment of the Chartists in Scotland had been restrained. As long as their meetings and rallies were orderly and held primarily for the purpose of political discussion, the authorities were willing for them to go ahead, while keeping a wary eye on them. It was when the talk turned to an armed National Guard and the goal of Republican government that the patience of the authorities snapped. Yet even the trial of the three leaders was conducted with courtesy, the men being judged ‘all respectable men, and, except as politicians, sensible’. James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution, was praised for his ‘highly temperate address’, in a trial which might well have called forth a good deal of impassioned and inflammatory rhetoric.

The three Chartists retained, as counsel for the defence, James Wellwood Moncreiff. Moncreiff was willing to undertake the role of defence counsel not because he was a supporter of Chartism, but because he had great sympathy for working men and a personal regard for the three accused. Moncreiff was a skilled and shrewd lawyer, and managed to have a number of points raised by the prosecution ruled inadmissible. He was also able to bring forward a witness who swore that Ranken was opposed to the formation of the National Guard, and had called for a public meeting in the hope of putting a stop to the proposal. Ranken was, he said, ‘what was called a moral force Chartist’. On the basis of this and other evidence, Moncreiff argued that there was nothing criminal in holding Chartist opinions. Chartism was ‘a code of politics quite as respectable in itself as any held by any other body of men. A man was as much entitled to uphold the six points of the Charter, as any other individual was entitled to hold his opinions, whatever they might be.’
James Wellwood Moncreiff counsel for the defence
The whole of Moncreiff’s address drew applause. When the jury withdrew – for a mere half hour – they returned a verdict of not proven on the charge of conspiracy against the three men. John Grant was found not guilty of the charge of sedition. There remained the charge against Ranken and Hamilton of being ‘guilty of using language intended and calculated to excite popular disaffection and resistance to lawful authority’. The jury found the two men guilty of the charge, with the words ‘intended and’ omitted.

This threw the court into some confusion. The judge pressed the foreman on whether the word ‘intended’ had been deliberately omitted. It had. Moncreiff then seized the opportunity to argue that the jury’s verdict meant that the men had not intended to produce that result. Intention was the essence of the crime. Their actions had not amounted to sedition.

The ensuing confusion was debated by three judges, who could not come to a unanimous decision on what the jury had actually meant. If they had meant the men were not guilty, would they not have said so? Should the men be sentenced to long periods of imprisonment, or set free? In the end, leniency prevailed. All three were sentenced to just four months in prison. Compared with some of the sentences handed out to English Chartists, this was lenient indeed. In fact one leader of (non-Chartist) riots in Glasgow earlier that year, George Smith, was condemned to eighteen years' transportation. To add to the conflicting opinions, Lord Campbell, a member of the Cabinet, was to say that he thought the verdict should have been one of acquittal.

There is an amusing postscript, as Moncreiff revealed in his memoirs. Twelve or fourteen years later, at a ‘somewhat stormy’ meeting, a man jumped up and made ‘an admirable speech’ in support of Moncreiff and his colleague. It was one of the three accused Chartists (he does not say which).  

I thanked him afterwards, and expressed my surprise at the moderation of his sentiments. ‘Ah,’ he replied, ‘it makes all the difference when a man has to heed for his children.’ I found afterwards that he had been prosperous in his trade and was a master manufacturer.

Ann Swinfen

1 comment:

Leslie Wilson said...

A very interesting piece of 'people's history. Thank you, Ann.